Commissioned under the direction of then Vice Chief Justice Tom Colbert, these portraits are set against the backdrop of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The incident reportedly began when a white woman accused a young black man of assaulting her. Fueled by false newspaper reports and strong racial tensions, mobs of whites rushed into the Greenwood District, the strongest center of black enterprise in Oklahoma. They beat and killed black residents, setting fires and vandalizing property along the way. Thirty-six square blocks of homes and businesses were destroyed. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 300.
In 1946, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher (1924-1995) applied to attend law school at the University of Oklahoma. Though the administration recognized she was qualified for admittance, she was rejected because state statutes prohibited whites and blacks from attending classes together. That spring, Fisher filed a lawsuit in Cleveland County District Court. She was represented by Thurgood Marshall (1908- 1993), who was later appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
Fisher lost in district court and appealed to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma. That Court upheld the ruling of the lower court, finding that Oklahoma’s segregation policy did not violate the federal constitution. Fisher would not be deterred, she appealed to the United States Supreme Court. On January 12, 1948, the ruling was handed down in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, which held that the state must provide Fisher with the same opportunities for securing a legal education as it provided to other citizens of Oklahoma.
However, Fisher’s battle was not yet over. Rather than admitting Fisher to the university, the Oklahoma Legislature decided to create a separate law school for her to attend. They called it the Langston University School of Law and set it up in the Senate rooms of the State Capitol. Fisher refused to attend and Marshall filed a motion contending that Langston’s law school did not afford the advantages of a legal education to blacks substantially equal to the education whites received at the University of Oklahoma. Again, the district court ruled against her and the Supreme Court of Oklahoma upheld the decision.
Fisher and her attorneys announced their intention to appeal again to the United States Supreme Court. Oklahoma Attorney General Mac Williamson declined to return to argue before the same Justices that the makeshift law school was equal to that of the University of Oklahoma. On June 18, 1949, Fisher was finally admitted to the University of Oklahoma, College of Law. She graduated in 1952 and practiced law for a few years before joining the faculty of Langston University in 1957. In 1992, Governor David Walters appointed her to the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. Her son, Bruce Fisher, serves as curator of African-American History for the Oklahoma History Center.
Amos T. Hall (1896-1971) was an Oklahoma attorney who led the fight for salary equality. He also served on the team of lawyers who represented Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher in her battle to be admitted to the University of Oklahoma. In 1969, Hall was appointed as a special judge for Tulsa County and in 1970 was elected as associate district judge. He was the first African American to be elected as a judge in Oklahoma.
Buck Franklin (1879-1960) was an Oklahoma attorney practicing in Tulsa at the time of the Riot. His office and the roominghouse where he lived were both burned to the ground. Following the Riot, real estate developers persuaded city officials to pass ordinances prohibiting owners in the burned area from rebuilding unless they constructed “fireproof buildings.” Franklin represented Joe Lockard in filing suit against Tulsa to prohibit enforcement of the ordinance. He ultimately prevailed and property owners in the Greenwood District were allowed to rebuild. He also filed dozens of suits against insurance companies for compensation after the property losses, but many of the policies did not insure against riots and made recovery impossible. Franklin’s father was a Chickasaw freedman and his mother was one-quarter Choctaw. His son is the renowned historian, John Hope Franklin, whose portrait hangs in the Oklahoma State Capitol.
Otis T. Clark (1903 – 2012) was a survivor of the Tulsa Riots. His family lost their home and his stepfather disappeared and was never found. With Oklahoma prospects low, Clark moved to California and worked as a butler for Joan Crawford. He later became an ordained minister and began working as an evangelist. He was actively engaged in spreading the Gospel up until his death at 109. When the painting was commissioned, he was the oldest known survivor of the Tulsa Riots.
Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is a portrait painter who specializes in communicating social and political ideas through her work. She earned a bachelor of fine arts from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2007. Her work has been exhibited at the SOHO20 Chelsea Gallery in New York, the International Visions Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Papillion Institute of Art in Los Angeles and the Vivant Art Collection in Philadelphia. Her illustrations have appeared in The Source, Utne Reader, Beyond Race, two.one.five, The Ave and Political Affairs.
Source: Voices of Oklahoma, oral history project: Otis Clark, transcript of phone interview made November 23, 2009; Franklin, Buck Colbert: My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, Louisiana State University Press, 2000; Oklahoma Today, March/April 2007, pp. 51-55, Artist’s website tlynnfaz.com, accessed August 5, 2011; Papillion Institute of Art, exhibit description; Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture; artist biography.